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Scarlet Fever

Scarlet Fever

Alternate Names

  • scarletina

Definition

Scarlet fever is a relatively rare infection. It affects people who have a throat or skin infection caused by certain strains of group A streptococcus bacteria.

What is going on in the body?

Scarlet fever usually occurs after a throat infection with Streptococcus bacteria, such as strep throat. However, it may also occur after a strep infection of the skin, soft tissues, uterus, or a surgical wound.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the infection?

Scarlet fever is caused by an infection with a strain of strep bacteria that makes the scarlet fever toxin. Strep throat is usually spread person to person through coughing or sneezing. Strep skin infections are usually caused by contact with infected skin.
Those at highest risk for scarlet fever include:
  • children older than 2 years old
  • people in overcrowded environments, such as day care, school, or military camps
  • people who have been in contact with someone who has a strep throat or skin infection

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the infection?

Early treatment of strep infections with antibiotics can prevent this condition. Scarlet fever was much more common before antibiotics were widely used. Avoiding contact with people with sore throats may also decrease the risk.

Diagnosed

How is the infection diagnosed?

Diagnosis of scarlet fever begins with a medical history and physical exam. The American Heart Association guidelines recommend that a throat culture be performed to confirm the diagnosis. A throat culture is done by swabbing the back of the throat to get a sample of the bacteria growing there. The swab is then put into a special container that allows bacteria to grow. This culture may take up to 24 hours to grow bacteria. With another test called ELISA, or quick strep, the diagnosis can often be made from the swab within a few minutes. Other tests may include a complete blood cell count to check for signs of infection in the blood.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the infection?

In most cases, there are no long-term effects. Rarely, kidney or heart damage may occur from the strep infection. These are known as poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, which affects the kidney, and rheumatic fever, which affects the heart. Both of these conditions permanently damage the body.
Some other possible long-term effects of scarlet fever:
  • hearing impairment
  • meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord
  • pneumonia, an infection of the lungs

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Scarlet fever is contagious and poses a risk to others. It is best not to share drinking glasses or utensils with someone who has a strep infection. Frequent hand-washing can also help prevent spread of this infection.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the infection?

The most important part of treatment is antibiotics. Medicines from the penicillin class, such as penicillin (i.e., Veetids, Bicillin) or amoxicillin (i.e., Amoxil, DisperMox, Trimox), are commonly used. Acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) can be used for fever, headache, or throat pain, as needed.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Antibiotics and acetaminophen may cause allergic reactions and stomach upset.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the infection?

Antibiotics almost always cure this condition. The skin quickly returns to normal once the rash peels off. In very rare cases, a person will need long-term treatment for heart or kidney damage from the infection.

Monitor

How is the infection monitored?

Adults can usually monitor themselves or their children at home. If symptoms do not start to improve within 2 to 3 days or if they get worse, the healthcare professional should be contacted. Any new or worsening symptoms should also be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control, [hyperLink url="http://www.cdc.gov/" linkTitle="www.cdc.gov"]www.cdc.gov[/hyperLink]

"Family Health for Dummies," IDG Books, 1998, IDG Books, 919 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404

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